Justin Smith has anchored the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line for six seasons now, and has continued to play at a very high level. This season marked his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl berth, and Smith, who will turn 35 this year, shows very few signs of slowing down.
Some mock drafts have the 49ers going for a defensive end in the draft in order to learn behind Smith and take over when the veteran DE inevitably retires. The implication here is that Smith’s career will be over sooner rather than later.
But is that really the case?
We looked at players with similar career paths to Frank Gore yesterday, but that’s slightly harder to do when it comes to defensive players—or, in fact, any non-skill-position players. The lack of individual statistics can make it difficult to gauge production. This is doubly true for a player like Smith, who doesn’t rack up as many sacks in a 3-4 defense as a defensive end would in a 4-3 formation.
In addition, the best defensive players don’t necessarily have the most eye-popping stats. The better a running back is, the more times he carries the ball and the more plays they are involved with. The better a defensive player is, the fewer times teams will challenge him and the fewer plays he is involved in.
Nevertheless, let’s press forward and give it a shot. Simply by taking Smith’s sacks and tackle numbers over the past three seasons into consideration, and attempting to find players within 10 percent of those numbers at similar ages, we end up with three comparisons—Mike Vrabel, Wayne Martin and Henry Thomas.
These comparisons don’t precisely project the rosiest future possible for Smith. Vrabel played one more year after his age-34 season—a productive one with the Kansas City Chiefs—and was then done. Thomas was a rotational player for the New England Patriots for a season before hanging it up. Martin never played again.
None of the comparisons really work, though. Vrabel was a linebacker, not a player on the line of scrimmage. Both Martin and Thomas played defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense. While Smith’s played in a 4-3 scheme, he’s primarily played on the outside.
While Smith has had equivalent numbers to these comparisons, he’s been compiling them at a position where the numbers are more deflated. The fact is, by consensus, Smith has been a far better player the last three seasons than any of those comparisons. He’s made three Pro Bowls and been selected All-Pro three times; the other three players had no such honors.
Four other players were honored like that in seasons between the ages of 32 and 34, and all four of them sit enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Comparing Smith to Leo Nomellini and Ernie Stautner is tough, simply due to the vastly different era in which the latter two played—though it is worth noting that both played and started throughout their late 30s.
Even Bob Lilly, having played 40 years ago, is a tough comparison. Most of his All-Pro nods were earned in a league with only 14 teams, for example—hard to directly match that up with Smith’s career.
That leaves us with Reggie White. Obviously, White and Smith are very different sorts of players on the field. White, as a 4-3 defensive end, was asked to rush the passer much more than Smith now is. Smith is more of a hybrid end-tackle, engaging the offensive line directly and allowing Aldon Smith to rush in behind him. Combine his role with his smaller frame, and White could probably be expected to last several years longer than Smith would, simply due to the different physical requirements of the position.
What they do have in common, however, is great success towards the end of their careers. Pro Football Reference has a stat called Approximate Value, which attempts to break down statistics into one solid number that can be compared across positions and across eras. Smith, over his age-32 through age-34 seasons, has racked up 45 points of AV. White earned 43—that’s good for the second- and third-highest totals ever for a defensive lineman.
White famously never slowed down. When he retired for the first time in 1998, he was still named NFL Defensive Player of the Year—that’s the level of play he was able to bring with him, even at age 37. He essentially retired not because he couldn’t perform, but because the wear-and-tear of an NFL season began to drag him down. At the time, he was quoted as saying that his body hurt sometimes in the mornings.
Smith’s had his own share of wear and tear over the past few seasons, most notably the torn triceps muscle he fought through towards the end of the 2012 season. That didn’t significantly slow him down, however, and Smith’s been quite adamant about his retirement plans, or lack of them.
When he signed his new contract last season, extending him through the 2015 season, SFGate.com quoted Smith as saying that, as long as he can still be a regular starter, he’ll stick around:
I said that. I meant that. I won't be a guy that's around for 10 snaps, 20 snaps. It's either I'm going (to play full-time), or I'm not going. And when it's time to get...out of here, I'm going. I get a ticket like everybody else, so that's what I'm doing.
Smith looks set to go out on his own terms, which brings us back to the initial question: How much longer will Smith play?
He has very few things left to play for on an individual level; his time with San Francisco has made him into a borderline Hall of Fame-caliber player, and while a Defensive Player of the Year award or a few more All-Pro selections would be nice, they really wouldn’t be necessary to cap his career.
The one thing he is missing is a Super Bowl ring, and I think that that, in the long run, will be the deciding factor in Smith’s longevity. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl in the next couple seasons, then Smith may decide that his career has reached a natural apex. Going out as world champion might appeal to someone who wants to be remembered as a valuable contributor, rather than a role player.
The one thing that does appear clear is that Smith shows few signs of slowing down, even this late into his career. He has found himself in a situation where he will likely go out on his own terms, whenever that may be.
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